Two of Sir Alex Ferguson’s most significant decisions as manager of Manchester United involved a frank exchange of views in a car.
In 2001, in a petrol station near the club’s Carrington training base, Fergie informed Jaap Stam that his United career was over. Stam, one of the greatest defenders to ever grace the Premier League, had been a rock in the United defence since joining from PSV Eindhoven in 1998. His natural authority and remarkable consistency at the back was the bedrock for the club’s sensational success around the turn of the millennium.
United sold the Dutchman to balance their books but, on the pitch, his departure left a gaping hole, and Fergie’s defence soon crumbled, as Arsenal reclaimed the Premier League title in the season immediately following Stam’s exit. The Scot would later admit that selling Stam was a costly error of judgement. He has never been quite so rueful about the other major United figure to be told he had no future at Old Trafford during a heated conversation in a car: Paul Ince.
The self-styled ‘Guv’nor’ had been crucial to United’s early Premier League-era dominance. Tireless, intelligent and clinical, Ince was named in the PFA Team of the Year in each of the three seasons before he left United, as was Stam. But Fergie, who has always claimed to have grown disillusioned by Ince’s attitude in the dressing room, decided to sell him.
According to Ince, he had been playing golf with Ryan Giggs when he received an urgent phone call from Ferguson. He left the bewildered Welshman and met the United boss in the car. In the next few minutes, Ince’s life changed forever. He didn’t want to leave United. In fact, he thought he was getting a new four-year contract and a testimonial, not a nudge out the exit door.
In a summer of change at Old Trafford, Mark Hughes was sold to Chelsea, Andrei Kanchelskis was offloaded to Everton and Ince was shipped off to Internazionale. The Italians had also made tentative enquiries about Eric Cantona. Unlike Ince, however, Ferguson viewed the Frenchman as utterly indispensable.
Then at his peak – turning 28 in October 1995 – Ince joined the Nerazzurri at a time of great uncertainty. Accustomed to winning titles at United, Ince arrived at an Inter side very much in transition. Having avoided relegation in 1994, Ottavio Bianchi’s side finished sixth during the 1994/95 Serie A campaign; 21 points adrift of champions Juventus.
Their domestic failure strangely coincided with two UEFA Cup triumphs in 1991 and 1994. But that wouldn’t do. Claiming a first Scudetto since 1989 was the main aim of Massimo Moratti, who had bought the club earlier that year. Ince, an all-round midfielder who combined finesse and aggression, was, Morratti felt, a key piece to the puzzle.
The first few months did not go smoothly. Ince, like fellow new recruits Javier Zanetti, Roberto Carlos and Brazilian striker Caio, had trouble adapting to the Italian league. Whereas Ince had relished the blood-and-thunder, frenetic style of the Premier League, Serie A was slower and more technical. Unable to speak the language, Ince was out of his comfort zone off the pitch. Having underestimated the differences between England and Italy’s top flights, on the pitch he struggled to fit in.
An already major adjustment was not helped by Bianchi’s tactics. The Italian coach, famous for having managed a Diego Maradona-inspired Napoli to Serie A, Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup glory between 1987 and 1989, deployed a defensive 5-3-2 formation, with Ince perplexingly shunted out to the flank at times. Having been the beating heart of Ferguson’s wildly successful 4-4-2, Ince found himself in a league he didn’t know, in a system he couldn’t grasp, and surrounded by players he didn’t understand.
No fewer than 16 players arrived at Inter that summer. Bianchi, under intense media scrutiny, struggled with such an extensive rebuild. In addition, the culture of racism in Italian football created a deeply troubling and hostile landscape for Ince. The first black man to captain England, Ince was unsettled after having been greeted by racist graffiti on the walls of the Giuseppe Meazza after he flew in for contract talks.
While Inter officials passed it off as embittered Milan fans, Ince would come face-to-face with the ugly underbelly of Italian football. In April 1996, Ince was racially abused by Cremonese fans having scored in a 4-2 win for Inter. After turning to those targeting him to applaud ironically, Ince was booked by the referee. “This never happened to me in England,” Ince said. “But I don’t want to think about it, I just want to enjoy my first goal in Italy. As for the booking, I just applauded the people who were insulting me, it’s not as if it was anything obscene.”
Unfortunately, it got worse. In October 1996, Ince was sent off during Inter’s 2-0 win over Piacenza after he was adjudged to have struck Gianpietro Piovani as the players waited for a corner. Piovani hurled himself to the ground theatrically and, although he later admitted to having racially taunted Ince, it was the Inter midfielder who was handed a suspension.
Ince-Piovani was just one of several high-profile incidents that year, the most famous of which saw George Weah break Jorge Costa’s nose with a headbutt after the former accused the latter of persistently racially insulting him throughout Milan’s Champions League clash with Porto. Earlier that year, a pocket of Verona fans responded to their club’s interest in signing Dutch midfielder Michel Ferrier by hanging a black dummy with a noose around its neck from the stands.
Whereas Paul Gascoigne had battled intense media spotlight and an expanding waistline during his up-and-down three-year spell at Lazio, what Ince encountered in Italy was far more distressing and lamentable. Fortunately, his fortunes improved on the pitch. Bianchi was dismissed just four games into the 1995/96 campaign and replaced by Roy Hodgson following Luis Suárez’s brief interim spell in charge.
Under the future England boss, Ince played some of the best football of his career, scoring ten goals in all competitions as the Italians reached the 1997 UEFA Cup final. He developed a habit of popping up with important goals, too, scoring the second in a 3-0 Coppa Italia win over Juventus at the Stadio delle Alpi.
Heavy favourites against Schalke, Hodgson’s side lost 1-0 in the first leg of their European finale. Ince missed that game but returned in the second meeting to create Iván Zamorano’s goal, when he flicked on Alessandro Pistone’s cross to force extra-time. Yet Inter eventually lost, 4-1 in the ensuing penalty shootout, which prompted the angry home fans inside the stadium to bombard Hodgson with coins and cigarette lighters.
Blackburn-bound Hodgson quit two days later and Ince didn’t last much longer; he joined Liverpool that July, irrevocably damaging his relationship with Manchester United. And while the 53-time England international may wince and shuffle in his seat when asked about his much-discussed United departure, he’s rightly proud of his two years in Milan.
Ince’s was a story of breaking down barriers of many origins; language, tactical, cultural. Such was his influence that news of his impending move to Anfield supposedly left Moratti in tears; powerless to prevent it. He may not have added silverware to his CV during his sojourn in the north of Italy, but in overcoming oppression Ince experienced something much, much more commendable.
By Matt Gault @MattGault11